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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Expression of the Flp proteins by Haemophilus ducreyi is necessary for virulence in human volunteers

Diane M Janowicz1*, Sean A Cooney1, Jessica Walsh2, Beth Baker3, Barry P Katz1, Kate R Fortney1, Beth W Zwickl1, Sheila Ellinger1 and Robert S Munson34

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Medicine, Indiana University, School of Medicine, Indianapolis, IN 46202, USA

2 Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Indiana University, School of Medicine, Indianapolis, IN 46202, USA

3 The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43205, USA

4 Department of Pediatrics, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43205, USA

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BMC Microbiology 2011, 11:208  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-11-208

Published: 22 September 2011

Abstract

Background

Haemophilus ducreyi, the causative agent of the sexually transmitted disease chancroid, contains a flp (fimbria like protein) operon that encodes proteins predicted to contribute to adherence and pathogenesis. H. ducreyi mutants that lack expression of Flp1 and Flp2 or TadA, which has homology to NTPases of type IV secretion systems, have decreased abilities to attach to and form microcolonies on human foreskin fibroblasts (HFF). A tadA mutant is attenuated in its ability to cause disease in human volunteers and in the temperature dependent rabbit model, but a flp1flp2 mutant is virulent in rabbits. Whether a flp deletion mutant would cause disease in humans is not clear.

Results

We constructed 35000HPΔflp1-3, a deletion mutant that lacks expression of all three Flp proteins but has an intact tad secretion system. 35000HPΔflp1-3 was impaired in its ability to form microcolonies and to attach to HFF in vitro when compared to its parent (35000HP). Complementation of the mutant with flp1-3 in trans restored the parental phenotype. To test whether expression of Flp1-3 was necessary for virulence in humans, ten healthy adult volunteers were experimentally infected with a fixed dose of 35000HP (ranging from 54 to 67 CFU) on one arm and three doses of 35000HPΔflp1-3 (ranging from 63 to 961 CFU) on the other arm. The overall papule formation rate for the parent was 80% (95% confidence interval, CI, 55.2%-99.9%) and for the mutant was 70.0% (95% CI, 50.5%-89.5%) (P = 0.52). Mutant papules were significantly smaller (mean, 11.2 mm2) than were parent papules (21.8 mm2) 24 h after inoculation (P = 0.018). The overall pustule formation rates were 46.7% (95% CI 23.7-69.7%) at 30 parent sites and 6.7% (95% CI, 0.1-19.1%) at 30 mutant sites (P = 0.001).

Conclusion

These data suggest that production and secretion of the Flp proteins contributes to microcolony formation and attachment to HFF cells in vitro. Expression of flp1-3 is also necessary for H. ducreyi to initiate disease and progress to pustule formation in humans. Future studies will focus on how Flp proteins contribute to microcolony formation and attachment in vivo.